Women in the Holocaust
While women’s experiences during the Holocaust were not entirely different from those of men, it would be false and misleading to assert that they were identical. There were many instances in which an individual’s ordeal was shaped by his or her gender and it is only by understanding what was unique to women—and what was unique to men—that we can provide a complete account of what occurred.
To use gender as a framework for analysis is simply to become more attentive to the possible consequences of one of the major axes of all social organization—together with age, class, race and religion. Just as all societies draw distinctions between children and adults, between rich and poor, and between members of different racial and religious groups, every known society—past or present, large or small—creates different roles and different expectations for men and women. When we undertake a gender analysis we typically look at the relative positions of men and women in the social structure (of occupations, wealth or political power, for example); the cultural definitions and expectations of the two sexes; and how they actually experience their lives.
It is important to stress that from the Nazis’ point of view no Jews had a place in the German Reich and from a certain stage of the war they were all destined to die. However, while Nazi edicts were imposed on all Jews and while all Jews faced the same ultimate fate, as Mary Felstiner concludes, “Along the stations toward extinction ... each gender lived its own journey.”
We identify and discuss four sources of gender differences during the Holocaust:
- Pre-war roles and responsibilities of men and women: Before the war Jewish men and women in both Eastern and Western Europe lived in gender-specific worlds which endowed them with different spheres of knowledge, expertise, social networks and opportunities with which they faced the Nazi onslaught.
- Anticipatory reactions: Because most Jews believed the Nazis would treat men and women differently, and because they assumed only men were in “real” danger, they devised gender-specific strategies to protect and save their men in their plans for migration, hiding and escape.
- German policy and treatment of men and women: Even though they planned eventually to kill all Jews, especially in the early years of the war the Nazis issued different regulations and work requirements for men and women that provided distinctive opportunities and diverse constraints on the two sexes.
- Responses of Jewish men and women to Nazi persecution: As they tried to cope with the calamity they were facing, Jewish men and women responded to Nazi persecution by drawing on gender-specific skills and resources.
In the 1920s and 1930s, in both Eastern and Western Europe, the lives of most Jewish men and women followed traditional gender patterns, according to which married men were responsible for the economic support of their families while women, even if they learned a trade or were helping in the family business, were responsible for their homes, families and children.
One consequence of the cultural norm of separate spheres in Western Europe was that women were generally excluded from the worlds of business, higher education and politics. They were therefore less likely to have non-Jewish business partners, professional colleagues, close friends, spouses and extended Christian families to protect them during the years of Nazi persecution.
In Poland and the other countries of Eastern Europe, the gender differences in assimilation were reversed. There, most Jews did not attain middle class status, although they may have dreamed of doing so, and both male and female roles were less rigidly divided than among the middle class Jews of Western Europe. Out of economic necessity, more Jewish women in Eastern Europe assumed responsibility for contributing to the support of their households and more of them actively participated in the secular and economic sphere. As Celia Heller and others have shown, in many families, especially middle-class families, it was the women who were the “engines of acculturation,” bringing Polish culture into the home and introducing it to their children.
This greater acculturation of Jewish women in Eastern Europe provided them with important skills and contacts during the Nazi era. Because Jewish girls were more likely than Jewish boys to attend regular Polish schools, learn the Polish language and become involved in secular activities, they had contacts for securing false papers, trading clothes and food, locating jobs and finding a place to hide or live (illegally) outside the ghetto. This was evident among Jews who passed on the Aryan side.
It is important to note that we are not asserting that women were uniquely advantaged or that their pre-war roles were always assets. While it is evident that this held true in some periods of the war, in others periods these roles reduced their possibilities for escape. For example, the responsibility of unmarried young women to take care of their parents led many young women in Germany in the mid-1930s not to take advantage of opportunities to emigrate. In the end, it was mainly women who were left in Germany and the final transports from Berlin to the death camps were composed almost entirely of women, especially older women.
Another example relates to the deportations. In the early stages of the Final Solution (1941, 1942), people believed the transports were for re-settlement and chose to accompany their family members. When it became increasingly known that transports and selections led directly to extinction, a striking number of memoirs and testimonies tell of women who refused to abandon their mothers and instead chose to face death with them.
In other periods of the war, especially in the early days of the ghettos and in some labor camps, women’s caretaking and homemaking skills were assets that enhanced their chances of survival. In the forced labor camps for example, women paid more attention to personal hygiene than the men; they kept their bodies and hair clean and mended their clothing. In general, this strengthened the women’s will to cope with the material conditions and avoid personal deterioration.
The second source of gender differences during the Holocaust relates to Jewish reactions to what they assumed the Germans were going to do and how they were going to act.
In the early days of the war most Jews believed that the Germans were “civilized” and would not harm women and children. Because they assumed that only men were in “real danger,” the Jews responded with gender-specific plans to protect and save their men. Thus in formulating their plans for hiding and escape they typically gave priority to the men. Similarly, they gave men priority for exit visas.
One vivid example of the extent to which families believed it was only the men who were in danger—and therefore marshaled their resources to save them—is provided by the arrest statistics from Paris on “Black Thursday,” July 16, 1942. Before the massive roundups in Paris, many Jews had been warned of the impending arrests by the hundreds of policemen, bureaucrats and office workers who were organizing the schedules days in advance. Only a lucky minority of Jews knew the precise details, but many heard general rumors. Because they believed that only men were about to be arrested, most Jewish families tried to save and protect the men by making arrangements for them to sleep at neighbors’ homes or by trying to find someone to hide them, or by obtaining false identity documents, or by arranging their escape to the free zone in the south of France. Because it was assumed that women and children were safe, they remained at home and thus turned out to be the disproportionate victims of the sweeping arrests. On that day 5,802 women and 4,051 children were arrested (compared with 3,031 men) and they were also disproportionately represented in the subsequent deportations to Auschwitz.
Although the French experience was disastrous for women and children, in other settings the assumption that women were not at risk allowed them to assume new roles and to take advantage of opportunities.
In Germany, even before the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, it was often the women who had to assume new roles to rescue other family members. Because it was assumed that the Nazis would not harm women, it was typically women who went to the police, the SS and the municipality to protest arbitrary actions against their children and families and to secure the release of husbands and sons who had been detained or arrested. In some cases they not only broke gender barriers but also challenged normal standards of legality. Many memoirs report that, despite their original shock at discovering that Nazi officials had to be bribed, women quickly handed them the necessary goods or money.
Similarly, in Eastern Europe, anticipation of what the Germans would do spurred different behavior among men and women. In the early days of the German invasion, mothers and daughters urged their husbands, sons and brothers to escape to the east, to Russia. (Some Jewish men also responded to the Polish government’s plea for all young males to move eastward to form a new military line.) As a result of the male exodus from Poland, women formed a majority of the Jewish population of both Warsaw and Lodz during the war.
Testimonies and ghetto diaries also attest to the ways in which anticipating German behavior shaped everyday life in the ghetto. In organizing and arranging the details of everyday life, such as who should risk going out on the street to wait in line for bread, the women were more likely to take on tasks outside the home to protect their men. Since men were at higher risk of being deported to forced labor camps or being picked up for a day of hard physical labor (accompanied by abuse on the part of German or Polish supervisors), they tried to avoid being out of doors during daylight. As a result, many chores had to be carried out by the women: it was typically the women who went out to trade personal belongings for food, or waited on line at the Judenrat headquarters to get permission to retrieve personal belongings from their confiscated homes or organize the repair of damaged businesses.
Adam Czerniakow (1880–1942), the head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council), also noted the increasingly assertive role that fearless Jewish women were assuming. His diary describes how the women would argue with the Germans who came to confiscate family belongings or to take their husbands to forced labor. Czerniakow recounts the different techniques that women used to convince the Germans and achieve their ends. He was impressed by their tenacity and fearlessness and observed their willingness to expose themselves to danger. He believed that they did not hesitate because they assumed that even if they were arrested they would be released after a short while (unlike the men).
The third source of gender differences during the Holocaust was the rules and regulations the Nazis imposed on the Jews. On the one hand, it is evident that Nazi ideology sought to eliminate all Jews—men, women and children, without exception—from the territories of the Reich. On the other hand, it is also clear that Nazi rules and regulations, especially in the early years of the war, differentiated between men and women. The nature and scope of these orders were important in shaping the length and conditions of Jewish lives before they reached the gas chambers.
One difference was the initial targeting of Jewish men for arrest and incarceration— in both Western and Eastern Europe. In Germany, for example, in the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, only Jewish men (some thirty thousand of them) were arrested and only Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.
Similarly, in the early days of the war in Poland, Jewish men were much more likely to be harassed, arrested and imprisoned. Men were also more likely to be executed in the systematic targeting of community leaders. A typical example was the fate of the first members of the Lodz Judenrat: all except Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (1877–1944) were murdered. In many other cases the Germans targeted the traditional Jewish leaders—such as rabbis—for humiliation and murder to terrorize the rest of the population.
As the war progressed, it became clear that German brutality was not confined to men. Women were also humiliated in the streets of the cities and the ghettos: they were forced to clean streets with their underwear and perform other dirty tasks for the Germans and Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans living outside of Germany). They were also subjected to sex-specific types of harassment such as being compelled to undress in front of strange men and to endure humiliating touching and jeering. But despite this type of harassment, it was typically not until the liquidation of the ghettos that women and children were subjected to the extreme violence and brutality that left even the experienced ghetto chroniclers shocked beyond comprehension.
A second difference in the German treatment of men and women was their consistent (and traditional) pattern of delegating leadership roles to men. In appointing the Judenräte, the Jewish Councils that were the governing bodies for the ghettos, the Germans appointed men. Not only were all the members of the Judenrat in the ghettos male (e.g. Warsaw, Lodz, Cracow, Vilna, Kovno); so were all those appointed to leadership positions in the Western European Jewish communities of the Netherlands, France and Belgium. (We know of only two exceptions to this generalization: the two women who served in leadership roles in Jewish communities under German control were Gisi Fleischmann in Slovakia and Dr. Olia (Olga) Goldfein, a member of the Judenrat in Pruzhany. Similarly, in the labor camps virtually all the internal administrative officials were men. (Here the single exception was Fela Markowiczowa, camp commander at Werk C in the Skarzysko camp.)
Even when Germans treated men and women identically, the behavior was interpreted differently because of the cultural expectations—among both Jews and Germans—of how women should be treated. For example, even though both men and women were forced to undress in front of German guards, this procedure was perceived as far more traumatic, humiliating and degrading for the women.
The gender-specific humiliation of women forced to undress in front of strange men is also noted in the diaries and memoirs of their husbands, fathers and sons, who were also distraught at the intentional degradation and mortification of their women. While men refer to the trauma of their own undressing and processing when they were inducted into the concentration camps, or previously in home searches in the ghettos, they describe the shock of their forced nakedness and the crisis of being stripped of their identity, individuality and personhood. But their shock and degradation do not reverberate with the same dimensions of shame and mortification as those of the women. Nor do they describe the same feelings of sexual assault when they are forced to endure body searches and invasive “examinations” of intimate parts of their bodies. It is indicative that men convey their own outrage for the women because they identified with the unique degradation that the processing represented for the women.
The fourth distinction in German treatment of men and women—which, ironically, was a clear violation of German policy—was that Jewish women were more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment and rape. Although, to judge by the diaries and testimonies that we know, the incidence of rape by the SS, German soldiers or police appears to have been rare, it is clear that many Jewish women were terrorized by rumors of rape. In addition, they perceived many sex-based assaults in the ways the Germans treated and humiliated them.
There are also some testimonies that report exceptions to this norm—i.e. systematic sexual attacks on Jewish women in specific settings. For example, in the Skarzysko camp Felicja Karay found multiple eyewitness reports of specific incidents of sexual assaults by overseers despite the fact that Germans were prohibited from having any sexual relations with Jews because of Rassenschande (racial shame —i.e., behavior beneath the dignity of one’s race).
Another notorious realm of differential German treatment of women was in the medical experiments conducted on women’s reproductive organs and on different ways of sterilizing them. In addition, there were particularly cruel experiments in which the “doctors” taped the breasts of breast-feeding mothers so that they would not be able to feed their newborn babies and then measured the endurance of the mothers and the babies. The agonized mothers were forced to participate until their babies were starved to death.
The last and probably most important distinction in German treatment of the two sexes involves that of pregnant women and mothers—as distinct from fathers. Here it is important to distinguish between what happened in the ghettos and the policy in the labor camps and concentration camps, even though there was also considerable variation within each of these three spheres (depending on the location, as well as the exact month and year).
In the ghetto period, a policy of compulsory abortion was common in Lithuania, beginning in the spring of 1942. Jewish women who became pregnant were required to have abortions and German orders dictated that ghetto doctors perform abortions whenever they discovered a pregnancy. The diary of Dr. Aharon Pick, a doctor in the Shavli ghetto, depicts the horrors of this order. He viewed it as part of the Nazi inhumanity and wrote that the German rules treated Jewish women like animals. “Soon, they will order us to sterilize the men and then their goal to exterminate the Jews will be completed. When this happens,” he writes, “the horrors of both men and women will be equal.”
In Theresienstadt, an order for compulsory abortion was issued in July 1943: after that date any woman who gave birth to a child was sent, together with her baby and her husband, on the next “transport to the East” (to the Auschwitz death camp).
Pregnancy was also a death sentence in the concentration camps, where all visibly pregnant women (as well as women with small children) were selected for immediate killing. In the selection process that occurred on the arrival ramp at Auschwitz, for example, any woman who was visibly pregnant and any woman holding a child, whether her own or someone else’s, was sent to the gas chambers. If a woman was in the early months of pregnancy she might escape detection and be selected for slave labor. And if she somehow managed to survive the remaining months and to deliver (secretly) in the camp, she again risked immediate death for herself and the child. That is why women physicians tried to save the mother by saving their poison for children born in the camp—to prevent both mother and child being sent to the gas chambers.
The final source of gender differences during the Holocaust is in the different reactions of men and women to the Nazi regime.
The everyday lives of men and women were differently nuanced as they tried to cope with the calamity they faced. Although there was considerable variation by country and social class, in general, among the middle class families in Western Europe, men suffered most from the loss of their jobs and businesses. Under the Nazi regime in Germany, for example, when Jews were dismissed from the civil service and professions and Jewish businesses were confiscated (or subjected to forced sales at absurdly low prices), men who had been actively engaged in work found themselves suddenly cut off from their professions, colleagues and daily routine. They were no longer able to provide for their families and felt humiliated by their loss of income, status and self-esteem.
For German Jewish women, in contrast, the early years of the Nazi regime brought increasing responsibilities as they tried to maintain a sense of “normalcy” and sustain their families on vastly diminished resources. Although they too were stressed by the new circumstances of their lives, they took on additional chores and burdens, becoming busier than they had ever been before. Shopping and cooking, for example, became more time consuming because of tight budgets, limited household help, the difficulties of obtaining kosher meat and the more intricate recipes needed to transform scraps and vegetables into a comforting family dinner. As Marion Kaplan has noted, articles in Jewish newspapers advised housewives to cook vegetarian menus, even though they took longer to prepare, because they were cheaper and healthier. This was just one of the many ways in which women were encouraged to recycle, make do with less and substitute their own time and labor for the goods and services they had previously been able to purchase. Ironically, their new roles provided them with some solace and pride at the same time as such feelings were withering in their husbands.
A similar gender-based dichotomy arose in the lives of middle-class Jewish men and women in Prague, Czechoslovakia, during the first two and a half years of German domination.
Turning to Eastern Europe, we find similar gender-based reactions in the early months of the war. In contrast to Germany and Czechoslovakia, where legislative restrictions, Aryanization of property and forced emigration proceeded more gradually and provided a buffer in the face of anti-Jewish violence, in Poland the violence and brutality began in the first days of the German assault and continued unabated. Jewish men were exposed to particular degradations, mockery and harassment, especially those who were most visible because of their beards, sidelocks and traditional black clothing. Jewish men who were caught on the streets were also captured for forced labor. Some of this forced labor was totally useless—like being forced to clean the streets with one’s clothing or prayer shawl, or having to carry bricks from one side of the street to the other and then carry them back—and served the sole purpose of humiliating or exhausting the workers. Others involved real work, such as cleaning up after bombing and shelling or moving furniture for the new German residences. Still other forced labor squads were taken to temporary camps to dig anti-tank trenches and fortify the new eastern borders. In all of these settings the workers were subjected to arbitrary and frequent beatings. It is not surprising that many men responded by refraining from walking in the streets to avoid being seized, harassed, humiliated and beaten.
The anti-Jewish laws that followed the first weeks of the German occupation of Poland barred Jews from keeping their jobs or businesses. Jews were not allowed to have a bank account and could not use their savings. The process of stripping the Jews of their property and excluding them from the regular economy left most men of the lower and middle classes unemployed and without any means of supporting their families. As most Jewish families lived on the daily or weekly income of what the men earned in their small businesses, they were left without any resources. The professional men soon followed: teachers, lawyers, doctors joined the ranks of the unemployed.
Thus men were the first victims of the new political order. Stripped of their main activities, unable to provide for their families, many felt useless and some withdrew into apathy. Others, however, tried to find new avenues of economic activities, working in different vocations, which they quickly acquired; and some turned to illegal activities such as smuggling. Others volunteered for forced labor because the Judenrat promised them that their families would receive an income from their labor. Many men tried to be flexible in adapting to the changed circumstances of their lives so that they could still fulfill their traditional role of supporting their families.
The responses of many women, in contrast, demonstrated a radical departure from their traditional roles. As noted above, during the first months of the occupation women were less often the target of degradation and physical abuse. They therefore assumed the task of becoming the family’s representative to the outside world. When their men were taken away or injured, or when they wanted to protect them from possible abuse, they now took a more active and independent role in supporting their families. This was true for women who had never worked outside their homes (or a family business) as well as for those who had worked before the war (an average of twenty-two percent of the Jewish women in Poland, though this varied greatly from place to place and according to social class).
This new responsibility was manifested in two different trends. The first was the dramatic increase in women’s participation in the “official” labor force. The second involved more ad-hoc, inventive and circuitous routes that women took to provide food for their husbands and children. We will discuss each of these trends in turn.
Consider first the dramatic increase in women’s labor force participation. In the eastern European ghettos and labor camps Jewish women who had never worked outside the home (or outside their family’s business) began to work in the workshops that produced a variety of textiles for army and civil consumption, brushes, tin cans etc. In the labor camps they were forced to perform many manual tasks with heavy machinery, producing ammunition and other commodities for the German army. They also worked in construction and prepared airfields and other military installations. Within the framework of the services in the ghettos women worked in the soup kitchens, laundries, taking care of children in orphanages and other services of the self-help organizations or the Judenrat.
It was typically more difficult for women to adjust to physical labor than it was for men. In both ghettos and camps, however, women were expected to spend long hours in factories and industries and to put in a full day’s work operating complicated machines. But they soon learned and became accustomed to the demands of their new jobs. In Lodz, for example, a major textile center, a relatively high number of Jewish women, some thirty-seven percent, were employed in the textile industry before the war, either at home or in factories. But their numbers skyrocketed during the war and by the time the final census was taken in the Lodz ghetto in 1944, virtually all of the women—close to one hundred percent—were working (and women made up a full half of the ghetto labor force).
In Warsaw women were only twenty percent of the Jewish labor force before the war and they were less likely than men to have employable skills. Women in Warsaw therefore had more difficulty finding jobs and the percentage of women employed in the ghetto was lower than that of men. But this was also due to the lack of jobs in the Warsaw ghetto. In fact, in September 1941, about half of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto (200,000–250,000 people) had no regular income and were mostly starving to death. A majority of the unemployed with no regular income were families of women and children without a male provider. If the women were not employed, they were simply unable to feed their children. These families had the hardest time in the ghetto and represented a sizable portion of those who were starving.
However, many women who were employed also had difficulty feeding their children in the ghetto. They tried to save a little of the food that they received at work for their children’s meal, but there was never enough. They also suffered from having to leave their children alone at home, from sunrise to sunset, while they were at work and they constantly worried about what was happening to them during the day.
Even when there were two parents working, most families had to supplement the food they received by selling off many cherished belongings. This task often fell to the women who, little by little, had to part with their favorite dresses, skirts and sweaters and the linens, sheets and bedding that had been part of their dowry.
Many reported that in the new situation, in which their men were more often endangered and abused, they were filled with courage and a sense of mission. It was now their responsibility to take care of the family. Some felt great satisfaction in their new roles in the family, while some professionals, who were involved in the self-help organizations, felt that they were fulfilling a mission in their jobs.
Yet despite the fact that ghetto women assumed these new paths to support their families—in either the regular labor force, or through more ad hoc and innovative routes —they still retained their traditional roles as well. Women took for granted their continued obligation to do all the housework. Thus women continued to take care of the regular household chores such as cooking, cleaning, mending clothes and taking care of children. They did all this in a ghetto such as Lodz, while working long days in the workshops and being paid about two-thirds of a man’s salary.
In the concentration camps both women and men faced a very different set of threats and challenges. Those who survived the initial selection were put to work—typically at harsh physical labor for both men and women. Here it seemed that men at first had an easier time in adjusting. Yet we also find many testimonies of some gender specific coping skills.
Many memoirs remark on the almost immediate transformation of the clothing (which both men and women were issued at random) among the women. For example, Ruth Bondy writes that when the men and women from Prague were transferred from Theresienstadt to the (unusual) “family camp” Auschwitz-Birkenau (in 1943–1944), new clothes were “thrown” at them without regard to their size, fit or appropriateness. Only one day after their arrival, the women had somehow succeeded in adjusting them to their bodies and sewing up the holes, using needles made out of wooden splinters and threads pulled out of the one blanket allocated to them, while the men, in hats with cut-off brims, in trousers and coats too short, too long, too wide, too small—looked like sad black storks.
Myrna Goldenberg writes about two further gender-specific coping skills: the sharing of recipes to cope with hunger, and the formation of “camp-sister” relationships to support and sustain each other through the concentration camp ordeal. Sharing recipes and cooking techniques in the face of planned starvation was not, as Goldenberg explains, a trivial matter: “It had a powerful psychological effect because it reflected a commitment to purposefulness, affirmed the will to live, and assumed that there would be a future.”
The formation of camp-sister relationships appears to be another gender-specific coping skill. As Brana Gurewitsch noted, the term lagerschwestern (camp sisters), coined by women in the concentration camps, refers to the close “family-like” ties the women formed for mutual assistance and strength. The term is unique to women. No parallel term describing male friendships as “brotherly” exists for men. Sometimes these women were real relatives—mothers and daughters, sisters or cousins, and sometimes they were pre-war close friends. But many of the camp sisters met and bonded in the camps, forming “little families” that bonded together for mutual help.
Ruth Bondy writes that the one decision that men did not have to face in Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 1944 was a decision that only the mothers faced. Although many of the women of Theresienstadt were privileged to live with their children in the family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, by June 1944 they knew they were going to be sent to the gas chambers. Because the Germans needed working hands they held a selection: the mothers of young children had the choice of presenting themselves to be selected as workers—or staying with their children and being sent to the gas chambers. After six months in Birkenau they had no illusions about saving their children: they knew that their children were being sent to the gas chambers. Only two of about six hundred mothers of young children appeared for the selection; all the others decided to stay with their children to the end.
We end with this quote from Ruth Bondy because it illustrates, more than anything else, the different experiences of men and women in the Holocaust resulting from the German’s linking of the destinies of women and children. (This was, of course, not the choice of the women or of their husbands. It was a German decision.) But as a result of this linkage, in coping with the calamity they faced women were always coping for both themselves and their children. And it was women’s responsibility for their children that led to the deaths of so many young Jewish women.
It is useful to recall that the most eminent chroniclers during the Holocaust were explicitly concerned with the issues that have been the focus of this article—i.e. the daily lives of women, their involvement in their families and their responses to the German terror. As Emmanuel Ringelblum (1900–1944), the well-known historian of the underground Oneg Shabbat archive in the Warsaw ghetto, wrote:
The future historian would have to dedicate a proper page to the Jewish woman during this war. She will capture an important part in this Jewish history for her courage and ability to survive. Because of her, many families were able to get over the terrors of these days (Ringelblum, 380).
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How to cite this page
Ofer, Dalia, and Lenore J. Weitzman. "Women in the Holocaust." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 18, 2018) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/women-in-holocaust>.